I spent an evening with the Beatles in 1963, escaping with them from their frenzied fans through a window after a concert that launched Beatlemania.
Ringo Starr looked up at me from a step on the fire escape ladder behind Cheltenham’s Odeon cinema. “Well, are yer coomin’ or aren’t yer?”
I didn’t need asking twice. My photographer girlfriend and I climbed out of the window, hurried down the steps and joined the Beatles in a dark, enclosed courtyard with high gates.
Outside, the roar of an excited crowd, the piercing screams of hundreds of girl fans. We clambered into a black minibus, someone threw open the gates and, as the noise reached a crescendo, we sped off into the night.
Several cars and motorbikes tried to trail us, our driver roaring through the town’s dark streets to try to shake them off.
We were heading east along the A40, towards Oxford and eventually London. Despite our driver’s best efforts, two motorbikes were still on our tail, and the Fab Four sat huddled together, chatting among themselves, clearly marveling at the mob scenes that had taken over the center of this sedate English town.
The time for interviews was past. All I got from them was a few “wows” and “bloody hells”. Gina grabbed some pictures, and then our minibus screeched into the car park of a hotel in Northleach.
The bus doors flew open, the Beatles sprinted into the hotel and barely a minute later a sleek Rolls Royce emerged from behind the building and sped off for London.
Cheltenham’s night in the national spotlight was over.
The stage was set for a nationwide triumph.
For weeks beforehand, we on the town’s Gloucestershire Echo newspaper — not to mention the Gloucestershire Constabulary — had been planning how to handle the Beatles visit, the first date on the group’s massively hyped national tour.
Since the previous year, the group had had three huge number one hits in the British charts with “Please Please Me”, “From Me To You” and latterly “She Loves You”, by far the biggest smash to date. As a warm up to the UK mega-tour, they had toured Scandinavia to wild acclaim. The stage was set for a nationwide triumph.
As a junior reporter on the Echo, one of my regular diary dates was the fortnightly pop concert at the Odeon. Some of these shows were great — The Everlys, Gene Pitney, the Stones, even the now terminally unfashionable Rolf Harris. Some — Cliff Richard and the Shadows for one — I felt were pretty underwhelming.
I had formed a nice, easy relationship with the Odeon manager, and I fancied my chances of getting a backstage pass for the Beatles on November 1, 1963.
The good man set my mind at ease.
There were to be two concerts, he said, the first at around 6 pm, so timed for the convenience of national and international TV and press. Special access backstage would be afforded to privileged, perhaps generous, Fleet Street hacks.
He would give me no details of security arrangements, on how the band would make their exit. But for the second house, at 8 pm or thereabouts, I was assured I could get to the Fab Four’s dressing room.
And so it came about.
A crescendo of screams and hails of lingerie and confectionery
We battled through the crowds in Regent Street to watch the end of the first house live. From the side aisles you could hear nothing but a thunderous wave of shrill screams and the pounding of a bass. Girls in the front rows were throwing their knickers and handfuls of jelly babies on stage.
Once, in an unguarded moment, George Harrison told a journalist he liked the sweets, an indiscretion he would later regret after being hit in the eye by a sugary projectile.
As the theater emptied, we were ushered backstage and taken to the stars’ dressing room, a shabby little place it must be said.
The big interview never really took off. John and Paul were tired and mordantly flippant, George monosyllabic. Only Ringo was happy to answer questions, and his responses were nothing that the London tabloids hadn’t had for weeks.
We hung on there, taking in the atmosphere but well aware we had nothing to justify holding the presses. Meanwhile, the supporting acts were back on stage for the second house, battling the huge frustration of hundreds of female fans whose only desire was to see and swoon at the Beatles, certainly not the Vernons Girls or Peter Jay & The Jaywalkers.
Someone came to tell the boys it was time to get on stage, and they headed into an eruption of sound and light. Forgotten in all this, we lowly hacks took up a position discreetly hidden by bits of backdrop, next to a stage window.
The concert was electrifying, building to a massive climax with “Twist And Shout”, to an orgasmic crescendo of screams and yet more hails of lingerie and confectionery.
The start of a big, new step in the Beatles’ rise to global stardom
And still I had no answer to the biggest question of this extraordinary night: How the hell could the Beatles safely escape the mob outside in the streets?
Then suddenly it was over. The curtain came down, the Fab Four dropped their guitars and ran towards us, or more precisely towards the stage window. Someone threw it open to reveal the fire escape steps. The boys rushed out, and Ringo invited us to join them. What a gent.
When the dust had settled, I made a startling discovery. The yard at the back of the Odeon did not belong to the cinema, it belonged to my father’s Vauxhall motor dealership alongside. He had given permission for this escape plan and breathed not a word to me.
I nearly struck him off my Christmas list.
The Cheltenham concert marked the start of a big, new step in the Beatles’ rise to global stardom. Newspaper front-page headlines the next day blared out in huge type, “Beatlemania”. Within months they had conquered the United States. Their new UK chart-topper, “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, sold one and half million copies Stateside in three weeks.
One British tabloid ran a full-page photo on the day after the Cheltenham concert, a close-up of a young girl in the aisle near the Odeon stage, her hands clasped in front of her, her eyes closed, her face bathed in celestial light.
Roger Crabb had a long career as a journalist in Europe and Asia. He worked for Agence France-Presse in Paris from 1970-74 before moving to Reuters. At Reuters, he worked as an editor or chief correspondent in London, Paris, Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and Singapore, before retiring in 2008.